By Keith Roulston
This was the time of the year, when I was a kid long ago, that we got to know our neighbours much better.
With most of the outside work done (we didn’t grow nearly as much corn in those days), farmers turned to work in the barn. In our neighbourhood and others across Canada, they also turned to the weekly Farm Radio Forum broadcasts, originated when Huron County native Harry J, Boyle was vice-president of CBC Radio (back in the 1940s before CBC television existed).
Each week neighbours got together, listened to a group of experts discuss topics of interest and carried out their own debates from which consensus was recorded and sent in to CBC. After that they got down to the serious business – playing cards, eating a lunch and exchanging news and gossip.
It was a time when nearly everyone still had a diversified farm: a few cows that they milked, pigs they fed skim milk after they separated the cream for the creamery, some hay fields and some crops, mostly barley, oats and wheat in our neighbourhood.
There were differences that you could see when you drove by farms (some people adopted combines sooner or switched to bulk-milk dairy farming), but generally neighbours seemed very similar – until they got together at the Farm Forum (or I suspect the Women’s Institute) and opinions were exchanged more freely.
When the topic of the night’s Farm Forum broadcast was discussed, you really got to see the diversity of opinion among neighbours. Although it was a time when farmers shared work much more with community threshing bees or wood-cutting bees, suddenly you began to see how differently one neighbour thought from another.
When I first started dating the woman who became my wife, she lived in an area of Scarborough that had been turned from farmland to residential following World War II. Most neighbours had young families and they were close, as we had been on the farm. It was only after we were married and Jill’s dad moved to a newer house in a newer neighbourhood, that people became virtually strangers from the people who lived two doors away.
All these thoughts come to mind following the lessons we’ve learned from the COVID-19 epidemic. One revelation has been about how little we know about our neighbours.
In stories published about the truckers’ convoy that paralysed Ottawa last winter, for instance, I learned that a young neighbour who used to frequent our house when he was a boy, was an outspoken protester. Was he alone in his family in thinking this way or did others who are part of the neighbourhood have similar feelings?
Although I still have conversations with some of my farmer-neighbours, we aren’t brought together regularly as when we had the Farm Forum and Women’s Institute. As well, farmers don’t share work nearly as much as they did 70 years ago.
Now when I drive down our concession, there are still a few farmers with beef cattle on pasture, one farmer who has a dairy herd, and some pigs barns, but there are huge acreages of cashcrops – corn, soybeans and wheat – often grown by large operators from miles away who rent land from those who no longer farm. I’m lucky, though, because we still have someone living on every original 100-acre farm.
Times change and people change with them. Through social media people have contacts with people across the province and the world, which is good. Still I can’t help thinking something is lost when the old sense of neighbourhood disappears.◊